The Dog Vaccinations Your Puppy Really Needs

Vaccines are vital to protect your puppy's health. Here's the lowdown on the core vaccines your puppy really needs, and the optional ones you might want to consider.

“Puppies have all their shots,” is a familiar line you read when combing adoption ads. It sounds reassuring and it’s one less thing you have to pay for once you bring your puppy home—because, let’s face it, the cost of everything you need before you get a puppy can add up quick. But the real truth is puppies need more than one course of dog vaccinations. Sure, there are optional non-core shots for added protection that you may not need, depending on the type of exposure your four-legged friend may encounter, but even just the basics is going to entail more than one round. Here’s what veterinarians recommend:

What are core dog vaccinations?

Make no mistake, a dog vaccination schedule is essential to protect your puppy from serious illnesses he could contract from other dogs or even wild animals. And in some cases, puppy shots protect humans from zoonotic disease—infectious diseases that spread from animal to human. So the vaccinations aren’t something to take lightly.

Rabies vaccination

Rabies is the only dog vaccination required by law in almost every state. (Check the 2019 laws concerning dog vaccinations for rabies in your state.) “The rabies vaccine is given around three to four months of age, with a booster at one year and then given every three years after,” says Peter Lands, DVM, and Director of Emergency Medicine and Critical Care at Saint Francis Veterinary Center of South Jersey. Rabies is a viral disease that animals can carry and it is usually transmitted when an infected animal bites another animal or human. It causes progressive inflammation in the brain and spinal cord, eventually crashing the whole nervous system which will show up as behavioral changes in the victim, such as loss of appetite, irritability, and nervousness. Once such symptoms appear, rabies is almost always fatal. Wild infected animals aren’t the only outdoor hazards for your pup: Be aware of these hidden pet dangers.

The core dog vaccinations

In addition to rabies, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends these core dog vaccinations: distemper, parvovirus, and canine adenovirus I/II. As much as you would like the puppy vaccination schedule to be “one and done,” that’s just not possible. “The first vaccine is given at six to eight weeks of age, with a booster every three to four weeks until 16 weeks,” says Dr. Lands. On your pup’s first birthday, another booster is given and then every three years thereafter.

Core shots explained

Parvovirus is an extremely contagious and life-threatening virus, especially for unvaccinated puppies. It’s transmitted via the feces of an infected dog and causes an infectious GI illness with symptoms of lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.

Distemper is a serious and contagious airborne disease (transmitted via sneezing and coughing) that can also spread through shared water and food bowls and even shared pet gear. The virus is also found in wild animals and can be transmitted from them to dogs. Puppies under four months of age who haven’t been vaccinated are especially vulnerable.

Adenovirus is a respiratory tract infection related to the canine form of hepatitis. The adenovirus 2 vaccination, as recommended by the AAHA, protects your pup from hepatitis and the adenovirus cough. Canine hepatitis is spread through feces, urine, and saliva of infected dogs and the infection mainly targets the lining of blood vessels, the liver, kidneys, spleen, and lungs. Swelling and cell damage can lead to hemorrhage and death. Adenovirus is one of the sources of kennel cough, causing inflammation of the upper airways and a terrible hacking cough. It’s spread through the air when an infected dog coughs, through direct contact with an infected dog, or through contact with contaminated objects like dog bowls or pet toys. Dog park rule number one—never bring unvaccinated puppies to a dog park. Find out the other etiquette rules pet parents should know before visiting dog parks.

Parainfluenza is similar to human flu, with symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, coughing, fever, and lethargy. It’s spread from dog to dog via nose secretions. “Canine influenza has increased in prevalence over the last few years, leading to veterinary hospitals advocating for the use of the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Lands. Like the flu shot for humans, the canine vaccine won’t prevent flu, but it should decrease the severity and degree of symptoms. All pet parents should learn to recognize the subtle signs your “healthy” dog is actually sick.

Optional dog vaccines

Noncore dog vaccinations are optional and not as critical as the core puppy shots. As you and your vet decide whether your dog should have these shots, you’ll want to take into consideration you live and your dog’s lifestyle, says Amanda Nascimento, DVM, head of integrative veterinary medicine and research at NHV Natural Pet. “For example, if your pet is going to doggy daycare, I suggest vaccinating against canine parainfluenza virus and bordetella bronchiseptica—diseases that may be associated with kennel cough or canine infectious respiratory disease complex.” Don’t make any of these puppy-training mistakes before you enroll your dog in doggy daycare.

Lyme disease vaccine for dogs

In addition, if your pup will be visiting or living in a tick-infested area, talk to your vet about adding the Lyme vaccine to your puppy shot schedule. “Vaccines are given as a series of two, three to four weeks apart, then once a year.” Dr. Lands says the best way to protect against Lyme is still the old faithful monthly flea and tick control regimen and of course checking for ticks after time spent outdoors. The sooner you catch them the better; Dr. Lands says the tick must bite and cling for about 24 hours in order to transmit the infection. Common symptoms include lethargy, fever, limping, and anorexia.


Do you have a water-loving dog who spends a lot of time in the lake or river? Talk to your vet about a dog vaccination for leptospirosis, an infection that comes from a bacteria found in slow-moving or stagnant water. “Dogs become infected when they drink water containing urine from infected wildlife. This can come from deer in the woods or from rats in a city,” says Dr. Lands. The infection spreads through the body, usually affecting the liver, kidneys, spleen, eyes, and central nervous system. “Vaccination is started between eight and twelve weeks, with a booster in three to four weeks, and then once a year,” she says. “This infection is also zoonotic,” which means your dog could pass it to you. Infection works both ways; though it is relatively rare, you can actually pass these conditions to your dog if you’re not careful with hygiene.

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.